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What the Fuck, Yaron Brook? — Part IV: The Objectivist Utopia

A Note to Readers: I’ve made the decision to make my latest post into a multi-part series exploring both my understanding of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism and why I struggle with publicly calling myself an Objectivist—primarily because of Dr. Yaron Brook and the Ayn Rand Institute distorting important aspects of her philosophy. This is part four of a five-part series. Read parts one, two, and three.

I’ve talked to some people who have a hard time envisioning a laissez-faire capitalist country, or what I half-jokingly call “the Objectivist Utopia.” They often perceive it as the neo-con wet dream: a government sold to big business, obliterating the freedom of anyone who can’t pay for it, and war-mongering its way around the world to prop up a precarious government built on two things: a military-industrial complex that would have no way of sustaining itself without exorbitant government contracts, and “free trade” with conquered nations with terrible human rights records and slave wages. That is not the Objectivist Utopia.

The Objectivist Utopia is a world where the government has absolutely no say in economic affairs. There is no Federal Reserve, no SEC, no IRS (or, at least a very different IRS), no ability to alter interest rates or artificially play with the value of currency, no ability to either impede or enhance private enterprise, no global trade initiatives or tariffs or sanctions. Hell, in the Objectivist Utopia, governments might not even own property for its offices; they’d rent it from private citizens, corporations, or nonprofit charities.

But how would the government pay its rent in a tax-free world? Well, Ayn Rand was not strictly against taxes: she was against exorbitant taxes used to fund a reckless, debt-ridden government, and thought the income tax was patently unconstitutional. Even if you want to perceive the Objectivist Utopia as having taxes, though, what little funding the government needs would be provided through various types of bonds. Rather than coerced tithing, a bond would allow a citizen to voluntarily decide what aspect(s) of government they want to fund, and how much they want to pay. Just as any Objectivist charitable contribution would require an element of self-interest, they would see this as an investment in a system they love—but they could pick and choose what to fund. And in the unlikely event that the government doesn’t get as much funding as it requests, it would have to make do or refund the bonds. It would have no power to deficit spend or raise taxes simply to make up for shortfalls.

With a government paralyzed when it comes to tampering with economic affairs, economic bubbles would occur far less frequently, grow far less enormous, and be far less detrimental when they burst. Investing would be more diversified; instead of putting all their money into the government-backed “sure things,” investors would be required to actually—gasp!—think for themselves instead of just following artificial market patterns or hot tips. This, at least in my hopeful vision, might motivate them to focus on areas of business for which they have some passion. Many investors already do this; many more don’t, which is part of what rigs the economy in favor of whatever the circle jerk of public politicians and semi-private plutocrats have decided.

In the real world, the larger a corporation gets, the more it resists change. The more it resists change, the more it sends lobbyists to Washington trying desperately to prevent change. The more it succeeds, the more the system gets rigged. The more the system gets rigged, the less individual freedom we have. This is the pattern that has created the problem in this country, not what is perceived as an indisputable fact that all rich men are Daniel Plainview and all the rest of us are the people whose milkshakes he drinks up.

It is a pattern that can only exist when a government is able to tamper in economic affairs. The government has always done this under the guise of the public good, and they often wait until an economic crisis to push for greater and greater authority to tamper. That’s the best time to rally support, when many citizens have been directly or indirectly affected, and even if they haven’t, they find it easy to sympathize with the imagery of impoverished children or displaced people. This, then, allows the government—bribed by businesses in the form of campaign donations, and pressured in the form of lobbyist armies—the control it needs to do the bidding of the “too big to fail” entities out there.

In an Objectivist Utopia, there is no such thing as “too big to fail.” Let the banks collapse. Let the automakers die. Surprises happen, and sometimes catastrophes, but there is no reason to prop up fraud and failure under any economic system. The business world would bear some resemblance to the tech world of today: some giants, some mid-sized companies, some small fries, and a whole lot of startup failures. There are always going to be skeezy guys doing skeezy things to try to make a buck. In a truly competitive world, such people would have a much harder time getting ahead. Your rich daddy can’t pull strings when there are no strings to pull. The best they can do is keep pouring cash into a failing business idea, but a rational investor would not be stupid enough to do that—even for his kid.

One thing to keep in mind is that giants won’t stay giants forever. They never do. Remember A&P? That could very easily be Walmart in a decade or two. Hell, remember MySpace? Comparing the giants, once again, to the tech sector, consider IBM and Motorola. Where were they thirty years ago? Where are they today? Hubris led to their decline, and lobbyist temper tantrums are the only reason they continue to squeak by. Did anyone expect, twenty years ago, that Apple would still be in business today? Intel’s story is one of constant pivoting, because its leaders saw the rapidly changing marketplace and made great decisions to first carve out a niche and then dominate. It’s not always the best who rise to the top—back when I cared about such things, I always preferred AMD chips to Intel—but “the best” is more than just the product. This is not a flaw of capitalism; it’s a flaw of the business that can’t offer a better product in a competitive way.

We live in a world where people think the Sam Walton empire is the devil, and nothing could possibly displace it. Costco, however, already has unseated Sam’s Club as the largest warehouse store. While Target is only a fifth of Walmart’s size, it has seen unprecedented growth over the last twenty years—so what does that say about Walmart? They can’t eliminate all their competition, and a growing number of people have sought an alternative. That’s capitalism.

But it’s not going to make everyone rich.

Mark my words: for every Henry Ford, there will be at least a hundred (maybe more like a thousand) assembly-line workers. Ayn Rand wasn’t stupid. I don’t think Yaron Brook is, either, but the difference is that Rand didn’t write or say stupid things. (That is not an invitation to find things Ayn Rand has said that you think are stupid and try to challenge me, but go ahead if you must.) Rand was not stupid enough to make the argument that laissez-faire capitalism will make everyone rich. That’s why she focused much, much less on economic theory than on philosophy.

The “problem” with capitalism is perceptual, which puts it into the philosophical realm. Everything Rand has argued about politics, religion, and economics relies on the foundation that it is not being viewed with the proper philosophical outlook. Everyone is free to disagree with her philosophical outlook, and therefore with her belief in laissez-faire capitalism (and mine), but Rand argues in her work that it’s not just about profits. It’s about people recognizing their strengths (and, importantly, their limitations) and finding roads to happiness that aren’t solely about money. Objectivism is about the link between freedom and personal happiness. Money is a symbol of a person’s achievement and productive ability, but not everybody is going to have the same productive ability, or even the same interest in goals like becoming a Fortune 500 executive. People still need to find happiness, and in order to do that, they need freedom.

In Atlas Shrugged, there is only one Dagny Taggart; there are hundreds of Taggart Transcontinental employees, from all social strata, working all manner of jobs for all manner of wages. They aren’t all proper Objectivists in philosophy (even Dagny isn’t, until almost the last page of the book), but what if we were living in that Objectivist Utopia, and all those Taggart employees had been raised with Rand’s proper philosophy? They would, as some are shown to in Atlas Shrugged, feel a certain draw to railroad work, but they would recognize they’re better suited to engineering or signaling or even administrative work or portering. Part of facing reality is accepting limitations, not living in denial and assuming you’ll be a Dagny Taggart if you simply wish or work hard enough, and then resenting her when the fantasy doesn’t pan out.

The flaw of the American Dream, as Americans have been taught it, is the idea that all people are entitled to equal, astronomical success. Brook reinforces this in his statement, but Ayn Rand would have never said anything like that. If she said anything resembling it, it would have been that the American Dream is to have the freedom to pursue the achievement of equal, astronomical success. It would not be easy or even fathomable for most, it would be very difficult for those who try—but more would succeed under a free-market capitalism system than under the current system, because they have the freedom of opportunity.

But that does not, in any way, shape, or form, suggest “we’d all be so wealthy, we’d all have so much money.” We wouldn’t all have anything. We might have more than we do now, because another virtue of capitalism is the tendency for wages to rise and prices to fall with increased economic freedom…but some people would remain retail workers making retail wages at a shitty job. With the right philosophy, some might be perfectly happy with this sort of job; those who don’t will not race out to “Fight for $15”—they’d remain thankful they have a job and use their discontent to motivate the search for a more suitable job.

Coming Up in Part V: What happens when the rubber hits the road and reality-oriented Objectivist philosophy meets something resembling reality? Can it work in a catastrophe? Also: At long last, I answer the question to end all questions: is charity possible for an Objectivist?

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